11/21/2002 12:00AM

Bush returns aboard African Princess for Mass. Oaks

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EAST BOSTON, Mass. - Yet another Massachusetts-bred stakes race at Suffolk Downs appears to be at the mercy of an overwhelming favorite, as African Princess heads the $30,000 Massachusetts Oaks on Saturday.

Last week, Jill's Layup was the bridgejumpers' heroine when she won the Amelia Peabody Stakes with over $400,000 backing her in the show pool. African Princess won't be as strongly supported in the Oaks, but she will be a very deserving favorite in the 1 1/16-mile race.

It figures to be a big weekend for African Princess and her trainer Tim Kirby. Regardless of how she performs in the Massachusetts Oaks, she will be awarded a New England Turf Writers Award as the region's top 3-year-old for 2002 on Monday night.

She earned that honor on the strength of her spring campaign, which included a win in the Helena Stakes against open-company rivals. She took the summer off and has lost both starts since returning. After a one-race absence, Vernon Bush will ride her on the Oaks.

Bush rode African Princess in the Elenora Sears Handicap on Nov. 2 when she finished fifth, beaten 10 lengths, in her first start since early June. Most recently, African Princess was an even fifth in an open-company allowance race on Nov. 11 under jockey Dyn Panell.

"She didn't win, but she ran an okay race with open company when I wasn't here," Bush said. "She's matured and she's got tons of talent and ability. She's just got to get into a racing frame of mind."

African Princess holds a special place in Bush's heart because she was his first stakes winner during his comeback from personal difficulties last spring. He has spent the second half of this year riding in Boston and New Jersey.

"It was a great experience for me to get to ride for a lot of great people and to get on some really nice horses," Bush said. "But I'm also looking forward to being back home with my family."

Bush and African Princess are likely to get a fight in the Oaks from Little Time, who is the only other horse in the race with a stakes victory. Trained by Lori Lockhart, Little Time has won three times including the restricted Boston Common Stakes earlier this year.

Of the others in the field, Judge Nancy has won three times, but was claimed for only $5,000 from her last race. Proper Gun has only a maiden victory. Trace the Blush, Sneaky Secret, and Mah Big Lady are all maidens.

* Jockey Joe Hampshire returned from a five-day suspension on Monday and continued his streak of consecutive days with at least one victory. Through Wednesday, Hampshire has won at least one race on the last 19 days he has ridden.

Handicapping contest

Suffolk Downs will hold a handicapping contest next Friday, Nov. 29. There is a $20 entry fee and the contest format will call for win wagers on races from Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, and Hollywood Park. There will be no live racing at Suffolk on the day. The contest will take place in the track's Topsider Room and will be limited to 150 entrants.

* Tickets are still available for Monday's Turf Writers' Dinner at the Danversport Yacht Club in Danvers, Mass. The banquet honors Bob O'Malley, Suffolk Downs chief operating officer; Chris McCarron, retired Hall of Fame jockey; and the region's divisional award winners. It begins at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $55 and tables of ten are available for a $500 charge. Tickets can be purchased by calling 617-568-3220.